There are almost 6,000 lane-miles of freeways in the Greater Los Angeles area and for most commuters not an inch of redemption anywhere. Never mind the glamorous titanium clouds and aluminum origami of the city's prestige architecture. The largest structures in our lives--the big-dig archeology of the future--are these sprawling concrete flumes veining the L.A. basin, and they are basically innocent of anything you might call design.
Deliberate design, at least. Like all chaotic things, the L.A. freeway system has its own, larger order of symmetry and self-similarity, which in a certain light can be a kind of grandeur.
Nearly everyone who has flown overseas from LAX has had this experience: You're late, trapped in the woozy throttle-sawing of afternoon traffic, speeding up, slowing down, speeding up, coasting to a stop. The minutes tick by. What an awful thing a freeway is up close: the bleached-bone concrete, the trash, the broken mirrors and ruined highchairs blown from pickup beds.
In the two hours it takes to get from the loading zone to the boarding gate, it's easy enough to forget the freeway with the kind of amnesia that helps us survive bad first dates. And then as the plane gains the sky you see the freeways again, now loose-knotted, glowing tendrils of red and gold draped on the horizon, a luminous netting to keep the city from slipping into the sea. How pretty.
What beauty there is in freeways is the unintended consequence of road-building technology. The loft and lazy curvature of an overpass, the height and span--which in its shadow may seem to have artistic authority--are the products of the blind algorithms of engineering: traffic load, road grade, footings, the crowns and cambers that allow pavement to shed the weather. Also, freeways are host organisms to the automobile, with its peculiar limitations. They can only rise as fast or turn as sharp as the vehicles they serve.
The Roman architect Vitruvius said design had three factors: firmness (the appropriateness of materials), commodity (the utility of the designed thing), and delight (the purely volitional, generally decorative element). But Vitruvius--and, about 15 centuries later, Leonardo da Vinci--found that even the most austere design, the most purely functional machine, had its own inner harmony, appealing to the watch-work movements of the human mind.
As for freeways, the problem is one of perspective: From road level it's nearly impossible to appreciate the winding intricacy of interchanges such as the I-110 and the I-10, the Harbor and the Santa Monica freeways, that from the air look like the filigree of a Celtic brooch. Also, quiet reverie is hard to come by when you're driving for your life down the El Toro Y, the interchange between the I-5 and the I-405 in Irvine, a stretch of highway that is at one point 26 lanes wide.
In a lifetime behind the wheel, some of my best moments have been driving in Los Angeles late at night, when the freeways are empty and virtually unpatrolled. The multitudes are gone, and the emotional memory is like the feeling you get when you go into the office late at night--it's silent and brightly lit--and you sense that mysterious energy of absence.
On late-night freeways--the city a bed of embers--you can sail along and enjoy the view. At places where high viaducts crisscross, such as the interchange at the I-15 and I-10 in Ontario, you can't see the bridges in the dark, and the few cars appear to be flying in stately progress across the sky.
My favorite stretches are the escalades of the HOV lanes, like the one at the interchange of the I-110 and the I-105 heading toward LAX--a single-lane viaduct that rises (how high? 100 feet, 1,000 feet?) into the night. The city lights look gorgeous, like the glowing spall on a welder's floor, and for that brief moment there is a sort of reckoning. This is why I live here.
Transportation experts measure freeways in different ways: "Daily-vehicle miles of travel," for example, is the sum of all the miles driven by all the vehicles in a day. On Los Angeles freeways, that number is more than 135 million miles. The average L.A. commuter will spend five solid days on freeways per year.
Compared to the face-time we have with these structures, the most audacious public architecture seems aloof and inaccessible. Odd that so much theory and so much civic vanity are invested in structures such as the Caltrans building--Thom Mayne's avant-garde dreadnaught shoaled at the corner of 1st and Main--and so little in the stiff-legged giants that Caltrans administers.
No artist--not even Richard Serra--would choose to work in civil engineering's preferred medium of pre-stressed, precast concrete pillars, pylons, caps and decks. And yet in a few places, a very few, you can glimpse the possibilities.